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Reflections on women and human rights

Rights and Freedoms

Thank you to the Lyceum Club for inviting me to speak, and to Christine Yeats and Judith White for your warm introduction. I recall that for my late mother, Dr Amy McGrath OAM, the revival of the Sydney Lyceum Club was very special. In sorting through papers of my parents, following the passing of my father, the Hon Dr Frank McGrath AM OBE, I found mother’s Lyceum Club card, membership number 101.

She would have been delighted that I am here today to speak to you, and I will feel her presence with us — she was such a big personality person, it is hard to forget her, ever. Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and pay my respect to Elders, past, present and emerging, and also to acknowledge any Indigenous guests attending today. Given our proximity to Barangaroo, and my reflections on women today, perhaps we should also remember the woman after whom this part of Sydney is now named. Barangaroo was the second wife of Bennelong, and acted as an intermediary between the Aboriginal people and the early British colonists in New South Wales. She was a member of the Cammeraygal clan of the Eora Nation from across the harbour. Although not her traditional land, Barangaroo is named in her honour. The role of women as intermediaries was clearly recognised from the outset of the colony. Given this audience and my role of nearly five years, I thought I would adopt as my theme, ‘women and human rights’.

My interest in women’s rights grew through my doctoral study in the 1980s

It was a study on ‘testamentary freedom’ — about the right to make a will. It became a legal historical study of the balancing between two great ideas: the idea of family and the idea of ‘property’. The outcome of that balance was how much, or how little, testamentary freedom one had. By the middle of the 19th century, however, testamentary freedom was essentially a tale of what men had; and what women did not — particularly the case of married women.

On marriage, a man and a woman became ‘one’ or, in Biblical terms, ‘one flesh’,[1] which meant that the woman’s legal personality disappeared into that of her husband. ‘What’s mine is thine’, only worked in one direction.

The property rights, or lack thereof, became a centrepiece in the campaign for women’s suffrage. They needed the vote to change the laws. For many women it was personal. When Millicent Fawcett’s purse was stolen at Waterloo station in London, the pickpocket was caught and he was charged with ‘stealing from the person of Millicent Fawcett a purse containing £1. 18s 6d, the property of Henry Fawcett’.[2] Millicent became the prime mover in the fight for women’s suffrage in England.

For Dora Montefiore, in Victoria, it was when her husband died that, the lawyer informed her, it was only because her late husband had said nothing about the guardianship of their children that they remained in her care. This was, she wrote, her ‘initiation into what the real social position of a widow meant to a nineteenth-century woman’. From that moment, she said, ‘I was a suffragist (though I did not realise it at the time) and determined to alter the law’.[3]

And it was in that context that I met Rose Scott, one of the first wave of ‘suffragists’ and a leader of the women’s movement in New South Wales. She was a Sydney celebrity for her salons in her home, ‘Lynton’, in Jersey Road, Woollahra. She was a woman of independent means and remained unmarried. She had, in Virginia Woolf’s terms, ‘a room of one’s own’. In 1889 she helped form the Women's Literary Society in Sydney and it was out of this society that the Womanhood Suffrage League developed in May 1891.

The 1890s were known as the ‘Mauve Decade’, because William Henry Perkin’s aniline dye allowed the widespread use of that colour in fashion. The 1890s women liked mauve so much that violet became one of the suffrage movement’s signature colours — green, white and violet — or ‘G’, ‘W’, ‘V’, for ‘Give Women Votes’. The suffragists saw the vote as the first step in a campaign of undoing ‘the old Blackstone code’,[4] including, as a natural principal target, the property rights, or lack thereof, of married women, the laws regarding guardianship of children, and the lack of equality in divorce.

The mauve, or violet, has stuck and women’s groups old and young have adopted purple as their theme colour. I was not surprised to see that Frensham school, at Mittagong, had the iris as its emblem. The school website says that it was chosen ‘for its beauty, strength and ability to flourish in all conditions’, but to me it was obvious that it was also chosen for the fact the colours of the iris are green, violet and white.

Today I am wearing a ring in the colours of the suffragists

The local suffragists worked through a policy of ‘much speaking’ and won their goals earlier than their British sisters. South Australia was first in 1894,[5] Western Australia in 1899,[6] and New South Wales in 1902,[7] the same year as for the Commonwealth. It was perhaps easier here than in Britain, as the Commonwealth could hardly be established by denying the vote to the women of South Australia and Western Australia. Once the suffrage was sorted out for the Commonwealth, the States fell in line.

In 1919, Grace Benny was the first woman elected to local government in Australia, for Brighton Council, now Holdfast Bay in South Australia.[8]For Britain, the struggle was longer — and harder. I have with me today a ‘toffee hammer’. Designed for breaking up sheets of toffee, these little toffee hammers played a role in the women’s suffrage movement in the United Kingdom. They called themselves ‘suffragettes’, willing to take direct, militant action.[9] The Women’s Social and Political Union adopted a policy of ‘Deeds, not words’, including smashing windows in government and commercial buildings as their official policy, to ‘show displeasure without loss of life’. These little hammers, easily available, easy to carry and keep concealed, were perfect for the WSPU’s window-smashing campaign. And it was quite extensive: over 200 women were arrested for smashing windows in 1911–1912.[10]

In Parliament House in Canberra there is a banner displayed outside the main committee room (where the Senate Estimates hearings are held). It is the magnificent Women’s Suffrage Banner. The banner was carried proudly at the head of the Australian and New Zealand contingent of women suffragists in the Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession in London in 1911, to urge England, as the ‘mother country’, to accept a young country’s advice on the wisdom of adopting women’s suffrage.[11] Painted by Australian artist Dora Meeson Coates, it is so big it required four people to carry it.

Under the gold lettering of ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ stands the white-gowned Mother Britannia holding her sceptre, while Daughter Minerva, holding the heraldry of the newly federated Australian states, counsels ‘Trust the Women Mother As I Have Done’. While the suffragettes stopped smashing windows with the onset of World War I in 1914, ‘Mother’ did not trust her women until after the war, in 1918.

The banner was rediscovered in the mid-1980s in a large collection of suffragette memorabilia in the Fawcett Library — just in time for our bicentennial celebrations in 1988. Dale Spender, an Australian feminist living in London at that time, Senators Susan Ryan and Margaret Reynolds, then Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, each had a hand in its ‘return’. Prime Minister Bob Hawke celebrated the handover at The Lodge on International Women’s Day, 8 March 1988. Senator Reynolds accepted the banner on behalf of the women of Australia. In 2002, to mark the centenary of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, it went on permanent display (they sell fridge magnets of it in the Parliament House shop). At that time there were 10 women in the House of Representatives and 20 women in the Senate, including Senator Kay Patterson. Kay is now my colleague at the Commission as the Age Discrimination Commissioner, a role in which her predecessor was the late, much missed, Hon Susan Ryan. (She passed away far too early at the age of 77 on 27 September 2020).

International Women’s Day, now celebrated every year on 8 March, was born out of the concentrated women’s suffrage activity of the first decades of the twentieth century. In Australia, the first IWD commemoration was held in March 1928 in the Domain in Sydney.[12]

This was the period when my mother was born. I would like to include something about mother in my remarks today, as she was instrumental to the re-establishment of the Sydney Lyceum Club.

Mother’s generation

Mother was born in 1921, the same year that Edith Cowan became the first woman to enter any Australian parliament, elected to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly. Mother was both a woman of her generation — and one ahead of it in so many respects. She was, like Rose Scott, from what may generally be called a ‘middle class’ family.

One of four sisters and three brothers, her father, Dr John Howard Lidgett Cumpston CMG, was the first Commonwealth Director General of Public Health — whose service in this role and saving Australia from the Spanish flu, I have had many occasions on which to reflect over the past two years. His mother, Elizabeth (née Newman) was a pioneer kindergarten teacher. Dr Cumpston had a profound commitment to education — and that his daughters would have the same opportunities as his sons. For women in the 1930s and early 1940s this was still pretty unusual. He said to his children that he could not leave them ‘capital’, but he would give them an education. In my mother's generation this was an exceptional standard to create as ‘the norm’ for his children. The names of my mother and two sisters are on a brass plate on a chair at Women’s College— found recently by a young cousin who is now at Women’s. Each of those women gained PhDs (the eldest, in 1998, at the age of 82).

Like many of the women she encountered at university in the late 1930s and early 1940s, mother had ‘left’ leanings (but also strongly anti-communist) and became associated with the Labor party, but abandoned these associations later in life, greatly disillusioned.

All through my high school years in the 1960s two things I remember, apart from school things, were my mother’s PhD and the theatres. Mother won a scholarship to undertake the history of medical organisation in Australia. She was in her mid-40s with four children between the ages of four and 12. From this emerged a whole range of whitegoods (clothes dryer etc) and school holiday trips in our red and white Volkswagen microbus to all parts of Australia where mother did research on her monster topic of a thesis. She used a manual typewriter. The tap-tapping of the keys punctuated many evenings over many years. She graduated in 1977. (My father had to catchup on retirement as a NSW judge by doing his own PhD — mother and I were on stage and in the procession for his graduation).

Although mother was not in the ‘paid’ workforce, she was a writer — and kept writing. She was also a great leader. She was Secretary of the P & C. She ran a theatre in our backyard, and then another one when the backyard was too small for the enterprise for showcasing Australian playwrights. She was President of the Women’s Club before her work to revive the Sydney Lyceum Club and later, a number of politically-focused societies. If she had been born a generation or two later, she would surely have been in parliament.

Mother almost reached her 98th birthday in 2019, missing it by only a couple of weeks. She was a fine poet and, as my sisters and I came to appreciate, so many of her poems were a continuing love poem to our father, to whom she was married for almost 75 years. She wrote plays, novels and musicals and also wrote on politics; on food; just about anything really. She had no time for editors and published everything herself. She managed the ‘room of one’s own’ as a writer, through dogged persistence, commitment to her craft and amazing time management skills. She set the bar very high for me and my three sisters.

So how far have we come in realising women’s rights?

Women’s rights are human rights. The journey has been a long one and is still continuing

While Dame Enid Lyons, widow of the pre-war Prime Minister Joe Lyons, was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and the first woman to serve in federal cabinet in 1949 as part of Sir Robert Menzies’ government, she was not given a portfolio and, as Vice President of the Executive Council, she said her ‘major duty was to pour the tea’.[13]

In 1965, Australian women won the right to drink in a public bar, but during the 1960s women working in the public service and in many private companies still had to resign their jobs when they got married. This ban was not lifted until 1966. It meant that married women could only be employed as temporary staff, severely curtailing their promotional opportunities.
Looking from1975 forwards, there have been a number of significant improvements.

The Family Law Act was passed that year, which allowed for ‘no-fault divorce’.[14] While this has been ‘a liberating change for unhappily married women’, it has ‘also brought its challenges in terms of the economic realities for divorced women’.[15]
The same year, South Australia became the first state to enact sex discrimination legislation. I remember the day when NSW enacted its own laws of this kind.[16] It changed how banks would assess my financial standing as a married woman.

In 1975, 10% of Australian Federal Senators were women and no members of the House of representatives were women.[17] By 2021, across the whole parliament, 38% are women. The Senate is 52% women and the House of Representatives is 31%.[18] Facing a federal election on 21 May, we will see what differences are made to those statistics.

In 1975, Dame Margaret Guilfoyle became the first woman to be a Cabinet Minister with portfolio responsibilities in a Coalition government, first as Minister for Social Security (1975–80) and then as Minister for Finance (1980–83).

Then, Senator Susan Ryan became the first woman to serve in a Labor Cabinet, first as Minister for Education (1983–87) and then as Special Minister of State (1987–88). In her role as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women she introduced the Commonwealth’s Sex Discrimination Act 1984, briefly earning herself the title of ‘Australia’s feminist dictator’.[19] This law is still one of the four key federal anti-discrimination laws — so far the principal means for enacting in domestic law our commitments under international human rights treaties.

While stories like Senator Guilfoyle’s and Senator Ryan’s were pioneering ones, there were also ‘underbellies’. Elizabeth Reid, appointed the first Prime Minister’s Adviser on women’s affairs by Prime Minister Whitlam, was truly a feminist trailblazer. But even in her role, she had to deal with the very behaviour she was fighting against. She has only recently spoken publicly about unwanted sexual advances made to her during that time by the then Governor-General, Sir John Kerr.[20] The description of his drunken advances towards her when they were in a tight space — he pressing his body on her — are likely familiar ones to you. She, like many in this room in similar circumstances, did not say anything about it, only telling her closest friend. She also showed great understanding for him, his wife having died not long before after a long illness. ‘Besides’, she said, he was very inebriated and was obviously wearing a corset, so he was ‘not as successful as he would have liked to have been’. She would not label it a ‘sexual assault’.

Looking at Sir John’s conduct through contemporary eyes Reid said that nowadays ‘people would be appalled’, but at the time, ‘there was little public conversation’, so she just pushed his harassment out of her mind. She had so much work that had to be done, that she didn’t have time to think about these things’.

Today’s statistics on sexual harassment are not very reassuring that much has changed. The results of the 2018 National Survey, conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission under the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, are revealing. When examining workplace sexual harassment in the five years prior to 2018:

  • Almost two in five women (39%) and just over one in four men (26%) said they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace
  • People aged 18 to 29 were more likely than those in other age groups to have experienced workplace sexual harassment (45%).

The most common forms of sexual harassment experienced were:

  • Offensive sexually suggestive comments or jokes
  • Inappropriate physical contact
  • Unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing — Sir John’s alleged conduct would be a good example of ‘cornering’.

In 2021, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that women were twice as likely as men to experience sexual harassment over their lifetime (53% compared with 25%).[21]And there are some frankly horrifying statistics on family violence. Some of the key statistics compiled by Our Watch include that:

  • On average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner — the murder of Hannah Clark on 8 September 2020, when her husband set fire to her car with Hannah and their three children inside, was an appalling example
  • Australian women are nearly three times more likely than men to experience violence from an intimate partner
  • There is growing evidence that women with disabilities are more likely to experience violence — eg, women with disabilities in Australia are around two times more likely than women without disabilities to have experienced sexual violence and intimate partner violence
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women report experiencing violence in a 12-month period at 3.1 times the rate of non-Indigenous women.[22]

This is why the work of my colleague, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, leading reviews into sexual harassment in the workplace[23] and in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces[24]; and the work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar, leading work on ‘closing the gap’ on Indigenous health,[25] and leading a national conversation to elevate the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls[26] — work supported by the Government I should add — is so important.

In the last part of my presentation, let me return to the idea of a room of one’s own. The independence of women that Virginia Woolf saw as essential to be a writer of fiction,[27] is a useful benchmark for a reflection on women’s rights.

Economic and housing security are two key indicators to test. Some of the ‘gender indicators’ from the ABS for 2020 are quite revealing.[28]

The median superannuation balance remains lower for women than men. In 2019, the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia found that the

median super balance for Australians aged between 60 and 64 was $137,050 for females and $178,800 for males, representing a gap of 23.4%.[29] For older women, an invisible problem is the risk of homelessness. Commissioner Kay Patterson’s team has undertaken research about this growing problem, revealing that the number of older homeless women in Australia increased by over 30% between 2011 and 2016 to nearly 7,000 according to the 2016 Census.[30]

If you have very young children, up to five years old, then only 64% of women participated in the labour force, compared with 95% of men. If you are doing it on your own, then you are more likely to live in low economic resource households. In 2017–18, around half of lone mothers with children (46%) and more than a quarter of lone fathers with children (27%) were living in low economic resource households.

And while women are more likely than men to have attained a Bachelor’s degree or higher qualification, for graduates of most fields of study, females are paid less than their male counterparts.

Plus, we women are likely to live longer than our male counterparts (by 4.2 years), and with lower superannuation or other assets stored away, there are big challenges.

But there are some positive things. Young women were more likely to be buying their home than young men: 24% of women compared with 18% of men aged 15 to 34 years owned their home with a mortgage in 2017–18. And in 2019, the proportion of women (51.2%) in Executive Level positions in the public service surpassed men (48.8%) for the first time.

Do we still need the symbolism of green, violet and white of the suffragists’ rosettes to energise current campaigns to recognise continuing challenges for women in law and society? I think so.


[1] Derived from an interpretation of Biblical texts such as Genesis, ii, 24; Matthew, xix, 5-6; Mark, x, 8. A useful discussion of the doctrine is found in DE Engdahl, ‘Medieval Metaphysics and English Marriage Law’ (1968) 8 Journal of Family Law 381.
[2] Brenda Hale, ‘On Courage’, Millicent Fawcett Memorial Lecture 2018, 13 December 2018, 1–2.
[3] Dora Montefiore, From A Victorian to a Modern (1927), montefiore/1925/autobiography/03.htm.
[4] History of Woman Suffrage, E C Stanton, S B Anthony and M J Gage (eds), 1881, vol I, 64, described the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 as the ‘death blow to the old Blackstone code’ and ‘the inauguration of a rebellion such as the world had never before seen’: 68.
[5]Constitutional Amendment (Adult Suffrage) Act 1894 (SA). The Act received royal assent in 1895. Propertied women in the colony were granted the vote in local elections (but not parliamentary elections) in 1861. See National Museum of Australia, ‘Defining Moments: Women’s Suffrage’:,them%20to%20stand%20for%20parliament.
[6]Constitution Acts Amendment Act 1899 (WA). It was proclaimed on 18 May 1900:,same%20voting%20rights%20as%20men.
[7] Women’s Franchise Act 1902 (NSW). Women could not stand for the Legislative Assembly until 1918, and admission to the Legislative Council was not possible until 1926:
[8] Australian Local Government Association, Women in Politics: Showing the Way in 2010 (2010) 8.
[9] =Suffragists%20believed%20in%20peaceful%2C%20constitutional,militant%20action%20for%20the%20cause.
[11] M Scott, How Australia led the way: Dora Meeson Coates and British Suffrage (2003),
[12 ]
[13] 3067a337a2f2c855ca2569de001fb2dc!OpenDocument.
[16] Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW).
[17] Parliamentary_Library/pubs/BN/2011-2012/Womeninparliament.
[18] ;;fileType=application%2Fpdf#search=%22library/prspub/3681701%22.
[19] 3067a337a2f2c855ca2569de001fb2dc!OpenDocument. Many more highlights of the struggle for
women’s rights from 1975 to now can be found in this article: 2015-09-24/beijing+20:-milestones-for-australian-women-since-1975/6792126.
[27] ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own is she is to write fiction’.

Rosalind Croucher AM, President